WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans on Thursday blocked the confirmation of two of President Barack Obama’s nominees, one to a powerful appeals court and another to a housing lending oversight post, setting up a confrontation with Democrats that could escalate into a larger fight over limiting the filibuster and restricting how far the minority party can go to thwart a president’s agenda.
The Senate voted 55-38 to move forward with the nomination of Patricia Ann Millett to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, five votes short of the 60 required to break the Republican filibuster. Forty Republicans opposed the nomination, three voted “present” and two joined Democrats in supporting her.
The vote to advance the nomination of Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., to become the head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency was 56-42, four votes short. Forty-one Republicans opposed Watt, and two supported him.
Republican objections to Millet, however, had nothing to do with her judicial temperament or political leanings. Instead, Republicans say they want to refuse Obama any more appointments to the appeals court, which is widely recognized as second only to the Supreme Court in importance and often rules on the legality of executive branch actions.
“Our Democratic colleagues and the administration’s supporters have been actually pretty candid,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader. “They’ve admitted they want to control the court so it will advance the president’s agenda.”
The court is currently split evenly with four Republican appointees and four Democratic appointees among the judges who regularly hear cases.
But it still has three vacancies. And Senate Democrats have accused Republicans, who are pushing a bill that would eliminate those three seats permanently because they argue the court has a light caseload, of trying to change the rules simply because they do not like the president who is picking judges.
“The judiciary is too important to play partisan games with,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. “And that’s exactly what’s going on here.”
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Millett’s defeat would force Democrats to reconsider changing the Senate rules so Republicans would not be able use the filibuster so freely.